You know it, and I know it, even though you may never have heard anyone say it out loud. You’re only a “real” Latino (substitute Chicano, Mexican, Salvadoran, Boricua, etc.) if you speak Spanish. If you don’t, well then, you’re just not down.
Before I launch into my little ditty about my trials with the Spanish language, let me give you some context. My family is from the South Texas border, but through circumstance and what I would argue was serendipity, I grew up in Los Angeles. After my parents were divorced and my father who spoke mostly Spanish to us moved out, my Spanish speaking abilities suffered greatly. It wasn’t until I was in college that I started to take Spanish classes again that I realized I had huge deficits that I needed to make up to be a fluent speaker, so that’s when I decided to go study in Monterrey, México for a few semesters. Although it was hard and I would not say that I am totally fluent by any means (are we ever totally fluent in any language?), I did manage to learn to speak well and read/write pretty good during my time in Monterrey, and for this opportunity I will be forever grateful.
That said, growing up as a güera in Los Angeles — the downest of the down cities — I often felt like I wasn’t Latina “enough.” Then, when I’d go home to the border in the summer and everyone switched between English and Spanish so easily that it would have been one language and I didn’t always understand, I felt even less “enough.” These feelings were only exacerbated when I would sometimes fail to understand what my grandparents were saying in their labored English (which they only spoke to me because they didn’t think I understood Spanish), or, they’d speak Spanish too fast for me to understand. Sigh.
All my past insecurities aside, I’ve learned that speaking Spanish is an excellent addition to my cultural and educational repertoire — but it isn’t the end-all, be-all. I love speaking Spanish, listening to Spanish, music in Spanish, etc., but the language in and of itself doesn’t mean anything without the cultural context in which it’s spoken.
Oddly enough, now that I’m a competent Spanish speaker, I find that I make other Latinos uncomfortable with my language skills — exactly as I used to feel as a youngster! And I don’t mean to try to be superior, or to make anyone feel inadequate for what they don’t know, just as I realize no one ever did that to me. What I will say, though, is that learning to speak Spanish properly, or even to read and write it properly, was one of the best experiences and decisions of my life and I think as Nicholas Kristof said somewhat inarticulately, Spanish is the most important language for people in the U.S. to learn.
You don’t have to go to Monterrey for a year abroad as I did — in fact, having recently spoken with relatives there, I wouldn’t recommend it — but if you really want to learn it, you can. There’s really no excuse these days, since there are Latinos literally everywhere; tutor someone in English and they can help you in Spanish, watch Spanish TV, listen to music in Spanish, etc. You can do it if you want to, and having been on both sides, I can assure you that the grass really is greener on the bilingual side.